Activision Blizzard’s kid-friendly Skylanders franchise is thriving in the shadow of the publisher’s more prominent, billion-dollar Call Of Duty series. Among that younger crowd, Vicarious Visions’ interactive world of Skylanders is the biggest thing in the gaming world, and it’s only getting bigger with the upcoming release of Skylanders: Swap Force, the third console release in the series and the sixth overall.
As with previous iterations of the franchise, the new installment offers some fresh features – for both the toys and the in-game experience – as well as the series’ well-established blend of action, interactivity, and humor that appeals to the younger set while entertaining the older crowd, too.
Interchange the future: The mysterious Cloudbreak Islands serve as the setting for the latest Skylanders adventure, as players (a.k.a. “Portal Masters”) are tasked with stopping the diabolical machinations of the evil mastermind Kaos, who’s determined to harness the powers of a magical volcano to do, well… evil. This time around, however, the army of Skylanders out to stop Kaos includes a group of characters imbued with the ability to swap the top and bottom halves of their bodies in order to form all sorts of wild combinations of powers and abilities.
To the volcano… and beyond! Your mission in Skylanders: Swap Force unfolds across several islands with varying environments, including the desert-like “Iron Jaw Gulch” (which we explored in our hands-on demo) and the swampy “Mudwater Hollow.” You’re joined in your adventure by several recurring characters who appear in cinematic cut scenes, and also narrate your progress and guide you to the next item, destination, or checkpoint that will bring you closer to unlocking the volcano’s magic and – more importantly – protecting it from Kaos and his minions.
The toy makes the hero. As in past Skylanders games, you control an in-game version of the physical, collectible figure that you place on the game’s “Power Portal.” Each figure is aligned with one of eight elements (Magic, Water, Tech, Fire, Earth, Life, Air, and Undead), and the character’s classification allows access to certain areas within a level and bonuses granted in certain sections of the game. Each character can be upgraded using currency earned within the game – by defeating monsters, smashing stuff, and completing various objectives – with upgrades granting them additional power and abilities. Many characters also have upgrade trees that let the player decide which abilities to prioritize.
For example, a pirate-octopus character called “Wash Buckler” wields a cutlass in one tentacle and a pistol that fires bubble-encased fish in the other tentacle. Players must eventually choose whether to emphasize the sword or the pistol during the upgrade process. The upgrades are saved to the toy itself, giving you the ability to use your favorite figure on any console and have all of your upgrades intact.
They’re called “Swap Force” for a reason. Where the second game in the series, Skylanders: Giants, added massive characters with new abilities to the stable of heroes available to players, Skylanders: Swap Force offers 16 new characters with the aforementioned “swapping” ability. The toys snap together using magnets, and can be detached and reattached in various combinations to generate new characters within the game itself. Attaching the bottom half of the bomb-tossing robot “Blast Zone,” for example, to the top half of the cowboy-snake character “Rattle Shake” results in “Rattle Zone,” a cowboy-snake with robot legs. It also results in a character that can take advantage of the benefits of two elements instead of just one.
Shift on the fly. Characters in Swap Force can be switched at just about any point during gameplay, and some sidequests involve opening a door that requires a particular element or combination of two elements. This provides a reason to revisit previously completed areas after you have access to certain side missions – either by purchasing a figure or teaming up with a friend. (The Swap Force characters feature different upgrade trees for both their top and bottom segments, and the upgrades are saved to the individual segments.)
Collect ’em all. Along with certain characters unlocking portions of the levels, each of the areas you explore is also peppered with various treasures, including some that unlock abilities in characters you might not own yet. To Vicarious Visions’ credit, these reminders of the larger stable of characters – and their corresponding toys – manage to remain more informative and entertaining than overt hard-sells for additional purchases, and the game itself doesn’t require you to purchase any additional characters to complete the main narrative. (But you’ll want to purchase them anyway.)
Short but sweet. As with previous installments, the levels in Skylanders: Swap Force don’t require too much time to blaze through if you’re not interested in exploring all of the corners of the island and simply want to get to the next chapter of the storyline. During our demo, we’re told we made it about halfway through the “Iron Jaw Gulch” level in just over an hour, but quite a bit of the level was left unexplored along the way. One of the key features of Swap Force being touted by the developer is the game’s breadth of side quests and supporting elements, and we saw quite a few opportunities for swap-friendly missions outside the main quest as we sprinted through Iron Jaw Gulch.
It’s all in the details. The world of Skylanders feels like it’s pulled from a children’s cartoon, with surreal, larger-than-life characters that interact in a brightly colored, high-contrast environment. During our hands-on demo, we explored several different regions of the Cloudbreak Islands in the Xbox 360 version of the game, and found the levels to be a nice mix of three-dimensional platforming, brawling, and exploration that make good use of the system’s graphics capabilities. Surrounding structures in the environment are reflected in a character’s armor, for example, and even the sound made by a character while traversing an area changes according to the surface and the type of “feet” (or tentacles, tail, etc) used by the character. Different combinations of characters also result in subtle changes in the way characters move, rest, and brawl. This is the sort of attention to detail that doesn’t always show up in games designed for a younger demographic, and it goes a long way toward keeping older players’ interest, too.
Upgrades welcome. We also watched a hands-off PlayStation 4 demo, and noticed some significant upgrades in the quality of the landscape and environmental details that take advantage of the next-generation system’s improved power. Shadows ripple in the water in different ways depending on the depth of the water, and light plays across characters and the surface of the environment in ways that makes playable moments feel an awful lot like interactive animated movies.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the Skylanders franchise for both kids and collectible-minded adults, and even more so with Swap Force. The sheer level of detail that went into designing the characters and their myriad abilities is impressive, and the addition of the swapping component makes the entire package that much more entertaining. Fans of Skylanders should find a lot to like about the latest installment, which goes well beyond the normal practice of introducing a few new areas, writing a new story, and calling it a sequel. Along with the new swapping ability, there’s also an online multiplayer component that’s finally being added to the series – though it’s described as a “soft” online element, allowing players to team up with anyone already in their list of friends, but not strangers.
The new additions to the Skylanders franchise provided by Swap Force should be an easy sell to existing fans, but newcomers should also be inclined to give the game a shot, as it offers a painless introduction to the series’ universe despite all of the new options it adds. At its heart, Skylanders: Swap force continues to be as simple as “drop figure on ‘portal’ and start playing,” but it also offers a surprising amount of depth, too. It can’t be easy to walk the line between kid-friendly projects and mainstream appeal, but somehow Skylanders appears to have done just that – again – with Swap Force.
Skylanders: Swap Force will be available for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, and Wii U in October 2013, and for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One when they launch in November.